Since the Nixon era, Rick Steves has spent about 100 days out of each year in Europe. Between last March and this September, he logged zero minutes abroad, though Europe was always on his mind.
While hunkering down in his home north of Seattle, the travel expert and multimedia personality created public television shows and hosted virtual events about a world nearly 5,000 miles away. In June, traditionally the beginning of the high tourist season, he started accepting reservations for tours departing the following year. Travelers moved fast, snapping up 95 percent of nearly 31,000 spots on about 1,100 group tours running February through December.
As for Steves, he finally crossed the Atlantic 18 months after the shutdown and is quickly making up for lost time: This fall, he hiked the Alps and dropped in on Paris and then returned five weeks later to lead new guides through Italy and to film in Rome, Florence and Athens. His tally for the last quarter of 2021: 30 days.
We caught up with Steves while he was at home in Edmonds, Wash., to discuss his recent forays in Europe; his approach to keeping his staff and guests safe, especially as we face omicron, a new variant that was identified a week after our initial conversation; and whether his trademark optimism is running high for 2022.
Q: How did the pandemic affect your tour operation?
A: It’s been a challenging time for anybody in the tourism industry. We came off our best year ever in 2019. On the eve of the pandemic shutdown, we had our annual tour guide summit. I had 100 tour guides in my living room, celebrating how we were all ready to go for 2020. We broke from that annual huddle and everybody flew back to their hometowns in Europe. Two weeks later, we realized that we were going to have to cancel our entire season for 2020. But our mantra was, “The pandemic can derail our travel plans, but it cannot stop our travel dreams.”
Q: How did you occupy yourself during the shutdown?
A: I’ve been very busy during the downtime, writing and producing. I produced a TV show called “Why We Travel,” a love note to travel. It’s a timely topic because it talks about the value of travel as we go forward after covid.
My priorities were taking care of my staff and our community. We created the Rick Steves’ Volunteer Corps. My employees use their paid time at food banks and senior centers and to help clean up parks. During the pandemic, there is a lot of need in our community.
Q: You waited longer than many others in the industry to travel internationally. Why?
A: For a long time, “patience” was my middle name. It’s not an American forte, and it certainly isn’t Rick Steves’s forte, but for a year and a half, I was being very conservative about travel. I thought that before the vaccinations, we should not be traveling. We should be staying safe, staying healthy and looking after our loved ones and neighbors.
Q: What developments or conditions eased your concerns about traveling abroad?
A: It was still premature to start group travel, but I wanted to go over there and see what it was like. I felt that in Europe, it was an ever-smaller world for people who were not getting vaccinated. Everywhere I went, it seemed like there were safeguards keeping unvaccinated people away from (vaccinated people).
Q: Tell us about your long-awaited return to Europe.
A: The first trip was a vacation. I wanted to hike around Mont Blanc with my girlfriend. It was six days, with 10 miles of hiking each day. We had sherpa service that shuttled our bags from one mountain hotel to the next. Then we went to Paris. I wanted to see what it was like from a covid point of view and how things were surviving. Several weeks later, I went back for a 20-day work trip. I wanted to do a guides mentoring tour. (The group, led by Steves, followed his nine-day Heart of Italy itinerary.) We have 100 guides in Europe. They are all professional guides, but I wanted them to know exactly what distinguished a Rick Steves tour.
Q: Based on your experience, how has Europe fared during the pandemic?
A: I was worried that we were going to be raking away the corpses of businesses that had died during the pandemic. But I happily discovered that almost all of them have survived. The other thing I noticed is that the ambiance of Europe, the passeggiata [Italy’s traditional evening walk], the energy on the streets, the cafe scene - they are just like they were before. The love of life is vibrant in Europe.
Q: Did you see many Americans during your travels?
A: Half the people hiking around Mont Blanc were Americans, and they were filled with joy. Half the people I met while I was waiting in line to see the Pantheon (in Rome) were Americans, and they were having the time of their life. Half the people I met at the top of the Acropolis ([in Athens) were Americans, and they were having a great time. The smiles on their faces didn’t say covid; they said we’re living, we’re traveling.
Q: How are the countries you visited keeping their residents and tourists safe?
A: If you go to a museum, you wear a mask. If you go to a restaurant, you show your CDC card, and you know that everybody in there has their vaccination. I was pretty impressed.
Q: In addition to proof of vaccination, what other documents do Americans need to visit Europe?
A: To get to Europe and fly home from Europe, you generally need to have a negative coronavirus test. People wonder how they get their test in Europe. It’s easy: Just ask at the hotel desk. Some countries also have a passenger locator form. I pooh-poohed it and the airline asked for my passenger locator form and I hadn’t completed it. So I had to stand aside at check-in and fill it out. I could have missed my flight. Before you leave for the airport, go online and fill it out.
Q: Will you make any adjustments to your tours to conform to local rules and to ensure the overall safety of your staff and guests?
A: We decided about a month ago that everybody on our tours - the bus drivers, the tour guides and the participants - must be vaccinated. I don’t want to take people to Europe and have them standing out in the street while we go inside and have a good dinner. You cannot function efficiently in Europe without having your vaccination.
We did the guides mentoring tour in part to see what it’s like and what’s required during the pandemic. We can’t take 25 people into a lot of the museums together. We can get their tickets and turn them loose in the museum or we can go in with two smaller groups. We will have people spread apart more at restaurants. That’s just common sense. I think 50 people in a 50-seat bus would be tough. We have 25 people on a 50-seat bus, and we will be social distancing and wearing masks if the pandemic persists. We will have the comfort of knowing that everybody in our travel bubble is vaccinated and is wearing their masks and washing their hands.
Q: Any upsides to the slowdown in travel and capacity limits?
A: You used to crowd into the Pantheon and it was a mosh pit. Now you line up, show your CDC card, get your temperature taken and see the Pantheon without the crowds. I was in the Sistine Chapel (in Vatican City). Usually it’s put on your shoulder pads and get ready to shuffle. Now it’s not so crowded. I have not enjoyed the Sistine Chapel like that in more than a decade. You don’t have the masses of tour buses from emerging economies. That takes a lot of pressure off key sites.
Q: Many countries, such as Germany, Belgium and Austria, are experiencing a rise in cases and are implementing stricter measures. A new variant called omicron has also surfaced. Will this affect your trips next year?
A: Exactly what the situation is going to be come spring of 2022, nobody knows. It’s a long ways away in pandemic time. We will assess closer to the departure dates.
Q: Do you plan to resume your heavy travel schedule for your various projects?
A: I am scheduled to go to 10 cities over 30 days in April. I am really excited to go back and make sure all of our guidebooks are up to date, and I am really excited to continue filming over there.
Q: Any advice for travelers considering a trip to Europe?
A: I think there’s a lot of anxiety and misunderstanding about what it takes to travel in Europe and what it’s like over there. On my first trip back, I was nervous. I am so thankful that I didn’t succumb to the nervousness and bail. So often you hear about things and worry takes over, but once you get over there, you think, “I am glad that I had the gumption to make this travel dream happen.”
Q: Do you feel cautiously optimistic about group travel to Europe returning in 2022?
A: I don’t want my trademark positivity to be a mask for recklessness or impatience. I think it is a stumbling progress, but we are making progress. At this point, I am still confident that we will be traveling in Europe next spring.